K's Reviews > The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris
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Nov 04, 07

bookshelves: professionallit, readablenonfiction

I wrestled with whether to give this book four stars or five. Despite its length and density, it was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in a while – stimulating, provocative, highly readable, and actually laugh-out-loud funny at times. Her arguments are too intelligent to be easily dismissed, much to the chagrin of Jewish mothers like myself. However, I decided on four stars because, ultimately, I’m not convinced.

Harris points out that much of the evidence for what she calls “the nurture assumption,” the idea that parents actually have some influence on how their kids turn out, comes from correlational studies. This is a limitation that pervades psychology, because many conditions cannot be controlled, precluding the use of experimental research and the ability to prove causality. In support of her conclusions, however, Harris herself cites many correlational studies and, worse yet, descriptive ones. I cannot blame her for this. As I said, the pervasiveness of correlational research is a limitation no matter what you are trying to prove. But let’s be honest about it.

Harris did manage to convince me that the conclusions of socialization researchers on the influence of parenting, particularly when it comes to birth order, are not well-supported. However, does that mean that parenting does not have an effect, or that we are not able to measure that effect properly? What if the problem is that our measurements are not sufficiently sensitive to pick up the effects of parenting?

Parenting and its hypothetical influence are subjective, changeable variables which do not lend themselves to empirical measurement. Although we can try to operationalize certain aspects of parenting and its effects, I think it is presumptuous to say that we can make any kind of conclusion based on such crude indices. I feel that this is particularly true in the absence of statistics that can prove anything other than correlations. Basically, what Harris has demonstrated is that the research supporting the effects of parenting is seriously flawed, both conceptually and empirically. What she has yet to convince me of is that I should therefore assume that parenting has no influence on children.

I have a ton more to say about this book, but goodreads is really not giving me enough room to emote and pontificate the way I want to. I ended up typing up a 6-page review and posting it to Amazon; those who are interested can check it out there. There are two ways to look at this: 1) This was a stimulating and provocative book which inspired a lot of thought for me, or 2) I have no life.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by rivka (last edited Nov 02, 2009 11:53AM) (new)

rivka Who says it's either/or? ;)


Skylar Burris I read your Amazon review. Now I feel like I don't need to read the book. :)


message 3: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K First, thanks, guys, for the votes -- I admit to being thrilled when people vote for my reviews! Yet another pathetic aspect to my hopeless goodreads addiction.

And Rivka, you're right -- it's usually both. ;)

Wow, Skylar -- thanks for having the patience to plow through my Amazon review. I hope I did the book justice. You may find the book worth reading in any case, though. If you have a book club of like-minded individuals, I think it could offer fodder for a great discussion (it's a bit long, though, and might need to be broken up).


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